The Life as a Judge… Meet Alexandra Marks
We had the pleasure of meeting Alexandra Marks, a Deputy High Court Judge, and learn more about her experience and little nuggets of advice she had to offer.
Being amongst the hubbub at the Women in Law Conference last September, you could almost see the waves of inspiration flowing in the air. And midst the well established legal experts and fresh-faced, newly qualified lawyers, we met Alexandra Marks, who had set out to educate solicitors so that they could, one day, considering taking the path of becoming a judge, just like she had chosen to do over 15 years ago.
From being a Partner at Linklaters LLP, to a Recorder and a Deputy High Court Judge and an Adjudicator for the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Alexandra found herself at the bottom of the career ladder all over again, when she decided to become a Judge, after her very successful career as Partner.
From the uprise of diversity and inclusion in the legal sphere, to taking on challenges which you may be apprehensive to embrace, we had the pleasure of meeting Alexandra and learning more about her experience and little nuggets of advice she had to offer.
So, you are a female judge in what is a predominately male-dominated area, how did you prepare yourself for such a role?
Well, it is true that the judiciary is still predominately male, but my role, which is dealing with jury trials and serving as a High Court Deputy, often leaves me being the only judge there. Therefore, the fact that there are lots of male judges in other courts doesn’t really affect me doing my job.
Honestly, your gender doesn’t matter when you are doing your job the best way you can.
The time where I felt my presence the most, was when I first started sitting at Court and I went into the judge’s dining room at lunchtime; there was a communal dining area for judges, and everyone sitting there were all men. When I walked into the dining room with 12 men in it, they all swivelled their heads to look at me and probably thought ‘What is this woman, this solicitor with primary school-aged children, doing here!?’, which did make me feel uncomfortable. However, I have been in a male-dominated environment for a lot of my working life, because, as a partner in one of the major law firms, most of the other partners were male. I happened to work in the property and finance world, where most of my clients were also male, so I was used to it. It wasn’t a particular issue that I felt I had to prepare myself for, you just get on and do your job. Honestly, your gender doesn’t matter when you are doing your job the best way you can.
Did you find that you were subjected to stereotypes in these roles?
Not often. On the very rare occasion, I experienced that it was with slightly antediluvian clients.
All in all, being stereotyped is relatively rare.
I remember one situation where I had a good relationship with the finance director of a construction company, and he said he wanted to introduce me to the company chairman. I went along to their offices and when he [the chairman] came into the reception area to where I was sitting, he looked around and, because I was the only one sitting there, he clearly thought ‘the lawyer is not here yet’, and walked off. Hilariously, when the finance director introduced me, the chairman’s jaw dropped open, because he obviously wasn’t expecting it to be me. It played into my hands because, while he was sitting there with his mouth open, I was able to take control of the meeting and the agenda.
All in all, being stereotyped is relatively rare. I suppose there has been ‘banter’ from time to time, but I actually brushed those things off. A female judge [I know] has an excellent way of dealing with this. If she thinks a remark is inappropriate, she says: ‘That is a yellow card remark’ or if it is very bad, a ‘Red card remark’, which I think is brilliant, because it is humorous but it gets the message across. It is not confrontational and I think actually being able to cope with those kinds of situations does earn you respect, whereas ignoring it, or batting it away probably means you will get it again, especially if they are trying to provoke you.
So you spoke about how you didn’t know that you could become a judge from being a solicitor, do you think the specific opportunities are aimed more towards men, or was it due to the fact that you were a solicitor?
It was solely because I was a solicitor, not because I was a woman. I had imagined that this was something advocates and barristers pursued, and it is true that it has been, and still is, the conventional path. Solicitors are, I think, at a disadvantage because unless you are in the kind of practice where you are spending a lot of time in court or around court, working in that environment is not something that you will be at all familiar with and so I found that transition really tough.
Actually, interestingly, I know from my work on the Judicial Appointments Commission, that women are typically more successful when they do apply.
What is it like, going from an office based job to court?
It is very difficult to make the transition, from an office based collaborative environment, where typically you are advising people, to a very isolated environment where you are in charge and you are making decisions. The transition was difficult, but ever since I have become a judge myself from an unrelated practice area, I have been evangelical about encouraging other solicitors to consider it as a career; it seems to have worked, which is what I wanted to achieve. Several people I have encouraged to take up judicial careers have done so very successfully.
I have suggested to those that have approached me [at the Women in Law Conference] that this is not something I think solicitors should jump into, but I want to plant the seed, so they are aware of the opportunity.
It is really a question of whether women are applying in great enough numbers. And I think that is where the issue lies.
In your opinion, why do you think that there are fewer female judges in comparison to male?
Oh, that’s a big question and really quite a difficult one! Actually, interestingly, I know from my work on the Judicial Appointments Commission, that women are typically more successful when they do apply. And I think that is true of many things: women are more reluctant to apply for a whole range of reasons, including not wanting to do the job, which is of course perfectly acceptable. But they tend to be better prepared when they do apply. So the success rate of women typically outstrips the success rate of men. So it is really a question of whether women are applying in great enough numbers. And I think that is where the issue lies.
One of the reasons I think women didn’t venture further to the top in the past, was because they were relatively few women partners that could have acted as role models for them.
As you evolved throughout your career at Linklaters LLP, did you see a change in diversity and inclusivity?
Yes, I think it did change. I never for a moment detected any discrimination or any suggestion that female solicitors were less able than male solicitors, in fact, it was well known that female solicitors were amongst the highest performers. But, many of them made a career choice, for all the sorts of reasons that we have been hearing about [today] about not pursuing their career to the top.
One of the reasons I think women didn’t venture further to the top in the past, was because they were relatively few women partners that could have acted as role models for them. Nonetheless, I think there has been a real change – I retired as a partner effectively 15 years ago, so my personal experience with the firm is now out of date, but I am amazed and impressed by the radical changes that have taken place in terms of gender diversity and all kinds of other diversity. From taking part in gay pride to lighting the building up to represent the LGBT community and colleagues, I think there has been the most fantastic transformation in the understanding and the importance of inclusion and diversity. It is also a business benefit to have people with different perspectives, different backgrounds and views because it is so much more creative and thus beneficial to bring people who have different ideas to the team.
I think the most important thing I have learnt, is to go for things.
You’ve clearly had an amazing career, what has been the biggest lesson you have learnt overtime?
I think the most important thing I have learnt, is to go for things. You have to be brave, foolhardy, or maybe a bit of both, but you should volunteer for things and push yourself to do things that you are not quite sure if you tick all the boxes.
My appointment as a Recorder, for example, was a classic example of that. I thought, ‘I reckon I am a pretty good lawyer, I think I could do the job having watched other people do it’, and it was only once I had been appointed when people mentioned how I was ‘being brave’, and I thought, ‘am I?’. I hadn’t realised I was being that brave, but in hindsight, I was. It was, and remains to some extent, quite a scary thing to do, because it was so far from the job that I had become quite experienced in.
You have to have the necessary competence but also the confidence to go right back to the bottom to something you know you don’t fully know how to do particularly well. Having to go from a respected senior professional, to right back to the bottom of the learning curve is really quite a difficult thing to do, and to be honest, I think it requires a level of humility and courage, as well as hard work.
You realise you are up against people that know more than you and with much more experience than you, which is quite a daunting experience when you have reached a senior position in another field yourself. The upside is that I feel it has been incredibly worthwhile. I have found it has been immensely rewarding, and at a personal level, it is very satisfying to have overcome challenges to be able to do something that is really difficult.
I actually think it is incredibly important that this is seen to be about people, rather than women, or indeed men.
I say to people, ‘why do some people climb mountains?’. They do it because it is really difficult but when you get to the top, you feel a real sense of achievement. And that is what it has been like for me; I wouldn’t suggest I am at the top of my field now, and I don’t aspire to be, but having overcome those initial difficulties and to encourage others to do the same, is very satisfying.
In order to achieve true equality in the workplace, how important is it for men and women to work symbiotically?
I actually think it is incredibly important that this is seen to be about people, rather than women, or indeed men. It is actually about getting the best out of people and ensuring all their hard work going towards their career progression isn’t wasted. It has been heartbreaking for me over the years to see some really excellent women and men leave because they just can’t really make it work for lifestyle reasons. I think that there is a lot of work to be done to restructure the workplace, which is a big ask, because let’s face it, it has been a very successful model. I think it requires a really huge effort of will and imagination to see it could be even better because you would get not only the diversity and inclusion, but the creativity, the innovation and appeal. This would not only surface the best lawyers but it would also serve the clients better as well. I don’t think this will happen overnight, but I know that other professional service firms are being very creative about the way they are addressing attrition of all sorts, by making the workplace more suited for the people who are entering it now. To change it, of course, takes a lot of effort and some organisations have made a lot of effort to enable people to take more leave, paid or unpaid, so that it accommodates their lives, their children their families and holidays. It doesn’t mean they can’t do the work, it requires efforts on all sides, but I think it will come.